The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With shot at .500, Nationals’ bullpen implodes as Braves rally to a 13-9 victory

Joe Ross collects himself during the eighth inning Saturday at Nationals Park. He allowed four runs and took the loss. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In a week when the Washington Nationals were playing their best baseball of the season, on a day when they could get back to .500 for the first time since late April, in a game in which they were facing an Atlanta Braves team that stands atop the National League East, it all went wrong. The bullpen combusted in an ugly, 13-9 loss Saturday night that ended Washington’s winning streak at five games.

“Today is one game, one loss,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We have a chance to come back tomorrow and win the series.”

Saturday’s box score

The demolition came just when the Nationals seemed ready to prove they were no longer a team prone to embarrassing implosions, that they were a squad to be taken seriously again. Instead, the supernova came.

Reliever Joe Ross surrendered a one-run lead and the decisive blow — a three-run homer in the eighth by the Braves’ Dansby Swanson — but it began before Ross’s arrival on the mound.

The meltdown started with a familiar face — Trevor Rosenthal — and was continued by Tanner Rainey, who hadn’t been around to experience the worst of this bullpen’s outings early in the season. The loss at one point seemed improbable because the resiliency of the Nationals’ bats had built leads of 3-0, 5-1 and 8-4.

The Nats had that last lead after six innings. Starter Aníbal Sánchez had let the advantage be slimmed to 5-4 in the fifth, but the Nationals responded with five singles in six at-bats to give him a four-run cushion again, and he followed with a 1-2-3 sixth.

But then Martinez looked to a bullpen thinned during the team’s two-day, three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies and a 4-3 win over the Braves on Friday. He didn’t have late-inning regular Wander Suero, who had pitched three days in a row. He wanted to stay away from Javy Guerra, who had pitched two days in a row, and the inning started with a switch hitter and four right-handed hitters, making left-handers Tony Sipp and Matt Grace less desirable.

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So he summoned Rosenthal. Twenty-four hours earlier, it appeared that Rosenthal had turned a corner, getting an eighth-inning out to maintain a one-run lead. On Saturday, it was like the night before never happened. He again looked like the bewildered righty who had thrown wild pitches, hit batters and needed more than 40 pitches across nearly a half-dozen appearances to record his first out of the season.

Against his first hitter, No. 8 hitter Tyler Flowers, Rosenthal issued a five-pitch walk. Four pitches ended up near the left-handed batter’s box, where he had missed during earlier struggles. By the end of his outing, he had thrown just three strikes in 15 pitches and handed out two more free passes. When Martinez came to retrieve him, the bases were loaded, nobody was out, and the fans were booing.

“There wasn't a big difference,” Rosenthal said of Friday and Saturday nights. “Looking back at it, after I came out of the inning it was really a small mechanical tweak. … It'll be something [where I] come back tomorrow and I’ll be able to figure it out fairly easily.”

Rainey, Martinez’s new setup man, came next. He threw two strikes before losing Swanson to walk in a run. That cut Washington’s lead to 8-5; the bases were still loaded with no outs; and the Braves’ best hitter, a National League MVP candidate, was at the plate.

On the first pitch, a 97-mph four-seam fastball on the outside half of the plate, Freddie Freeman cleared the bases and tied the score with an opposite-field double. Rainey navigated the rest of the inning without damage by getting a flyout and a pair of strikeouts, but the damage was done — and Rosenthal’s ERA had ballooned to 22.74.

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In the bottom half, the Nationals scored on a wild pitch to reclaim the lead at 9-8, but Ross was overwhelmed in the next inning. He allowed a pair of singles and a tying double before recording an out. Pitching coach Paul Menhart came out for a mound visit; the lead was gone, but the tie could be preserved. Then Swanson belted a 1-1 slider into the bullpen and, effectively, it was over.

“Just got hurt on a breaking ball that didn’t get out of the zone with two strikes,” Ross said. “You’d like to execute below the zone, obviously, and he kind of made me pay for it.”

The Nationals got a scare much earlier. In the second inning, center fielder Victor Robles went down to a knee between pitches with what the team later described as dizziness brought on by dehydration. Robles seemed okay after the game — he was eating dinner in the clubhouse — but Martinez said he would talk to him again Sunday.

All of that overshadowed a nine-run outburst powered by four RBI from Juan Soto and three runs apiece by Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. And it threatened to leave Washington with a series loss Sunday that it can ill afford.

If the Nationals had felt good about the progress they had made in the past week, if the defense and the bullpen and the timely hitting had buoyed hopes of a remarkable turnaround leading to a postseason berth, this was a reminder of how bad things can get — and how quickly.